Communication for Remote Learning: How to Build the Plan Your School Needs

April 1, 2020 Chris Frazier
Around the world, schools are shutting their physical doors and moving their classrooms online. For many, the action is temporary, a response to calls for social distancing in light of the recent spread of the novel coronavirus. But the sudden shift to virtual classrooms is renewing interest in remote learning programs, highlighting their potential as a flexible alternative to on-site classes.
 
 
One of the greatest draws of remote learning programs has been their ability to accommodate students’ lives. Responsibilities like jobs and families, or unexpected events—like sudden, global quarantines—can prevent students from attending classes. But they don’t have to. For years, the internet has allowed students to adapt traditional learning programs to fit their lives, rather than the other way around. The current situation is a perfect example. Although it’s unclear how long some schools will have to stay closed, students and teachers are still keeping in touch through virtual communications. 
 
Strong communication is essential to digital transformation in schools. A successful communication plan allows students, faculty, and staff to connect with and support each other across all avenues of the education system. It helps students navigate the enrollment process and beyond. It facilitates collaboration among faculty, creates fluidity between lesson plans and strengthens administrative housekeeping.
 
Establishing a clear communication plan is the first step in transitioning your school to online or remote learning, but knowing where to start can be challenging. How do you know you’re using the right technology, at the right time, and—perhaps most importantly—delivering the right messages? Here we provide insight on how to begin developing a communication plan, the necessary tools, and the various factors to consider throughout.
 

Build the foundation

Before you create and implement an effective communication plan, we recommend taking time to build a foundation—to integrate the necessary tools and acquaint staff with new ideas. These key steps will help you:
  • Establish a CRM platform with campus-wide access. A strong customer relationship management (CRM) platform is an essential first step to an effective communication pan, especially for remote learning. CRM platforms enhance traditional administrative processes by collecting and managing student data, providing a data-driven 360-degree view of students. With key student data readily available, staff can provide more personalized experiences and avoid having students repeat information. These platforms also serve as a central hub for tools that leverage these insights and connect students and staff with the help they need. 
Consider a student in need of financial aid. With a CRM platform, the student goes to the financial aid office, and the advisor makes a note on the student’s record regarding the conversation, what the student’s next steps are, and sends them to the Bursar’s office. Upon arrival, the Bursar’s office can clearly see that information and is able to help the student in a seamless transition. The student won’t have to rehash what just occurred with Financial Aid. 
 
And because these platforms are digital, they immediately begin to mobilize the school’s infrastructure. The example above doesn’t need to occur in person. Data and profiles can be accessed anywhere, providing the same seamless, personalized experiences to remote learners and remote staff.
 
  • Encourage departmental collaboration to coordinate groups and avoid conflicting or overlapping messages. Admissions, Financial Aid, Academic Advising, Career Services, Alumni Engagement: Ideally, all these departments work together. Incorporating other applicable groups, such as Residential Life or Athletics, will help ensure a truly comprehensive plan. The same goes for teachers across subjects. Digital communications can coordinate lessons and support holistic learning across subjects.
The goal is to unify departments and share communications, so students or their parents are not hit with multiple emails, phone calls, or texts, especially on the same day. By working together, campus departments and groups can share their communications, especially when the content has enough similarities, such as getting the student through the enrollment process.
  • Create a Center of Excellence (CoE), which monitors, updates and governs the student communication plan to ensure consistency. This is not intended to micro-manage or approve content, but rather to look at the communications as a whole, and periodically determine what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. 
Having a dedicated group to evaluate the overall student communications gives great insight into what is sent, when, how frequently, and through which channels. The CoE should function across four main pillars: 
  1. Strategy & Planning
  2. Building & Delivery 
  3. Maintaining & Operating
  4. Adopting & Sustaining

Comparing tools

After you’ve established this foundation as the starting point, you can make decisions regarding which tools (email or telephone, for example) to use, when to use them, and what to use them for. 
 
This table outlines the four primary communication tools that schools may want to consider using in a communication plan for one-to-one student engagement.
 
 
While these are the best methods of communication for one-on-one engagements, don’t underestimate the power of the school’s website and social media for widespread message delivery, and the subsequent interactions staff could have with students who respond to that content.

Implementing the plan

With specific tools added to the foundation, you’re ready to come up with an effective communication plan. The following provides guidance on things to consider, but it’s not an exhaustive list.
 
Staffing model
 
This is a critical factor, especially for schools who are recruiting across and enrolling from all U.S. time zones or internationally. When rolling out multiple communication channels, they must be supported in accordance with the times students may use them, which could result in off-hours for staff.
 
Evaluate the volume of students being supported as well as their geographical locations.
Consider high-traffic communication periods, such as right before or toward the end of terms/semesters.
 
Departmental engagement and access
 
Departments should already be collaborating as part of the established foundation, but now is the time to dive deep and determine who has access to the tools, for what purpose, and to define message content.
  • Avoid silos and get people talking interdepartmentally to ensure cohesion and unity for the sake of the students.
  • Combine messaging when possible across departments so students receive single messages that encompass all the information they need.
Platform and tool support
 
While departmental subject matter experts are the best sources for determining what to communicate and when, they may not have the bandwidth to manage the necessary preparation, delivery, and monitoring needed for certain channels. Dedicated departmental resources can act as administrators to ensure communication management and to collaborate within the Center of Excellence. This helps to avoid overlap, to work through competing priorities, and to monitor what is working and what isn’t.
 
  • Establishing administrators will help maintain security and consistency, so a wide variety of people do not have access to change key content within the system.
  • Establishing a small number of people with administrative access provides a funnel for information and requests, making maintenance and management of the system more efficient.
Managing student preferences and unsubscribes
 
A factor of effective communication is reaching students using their preferred methods of communication. The CRM platform should contain not only their preferences, but also opt-outs, and messages should be tailored to the students’ requests. This could result in utilizing multiple channels for individual messages to different students, but duplication has to be managed and avoided.
  • Opt-outs and unsubscribes need to be carefully maintained and managed to remain compliant with established regulations
  • Despite preferences, official communications may require delivery through defined methods. Continue to use these and find ways to alert students to these notifications so key information isn’t overlooked if the delivery method isn’t preferred.
These guidelines are just the tip of the iceberg. However, they can provide a general understanding of some of the necessary elements for a successful one-on-one communication plan. System implementation, onboarding, and rollout are also big pieces to this puzzle. And, once established, keep in mind that these tactics aren’t just for remote education students; they also apply to on-campus students who might prefer texting to walking into an office to talk with someone. 
 
Defining scenarios and use cases for messaging and communication methods will be helpful as teams work through the steps to devise a plan. In next week’s blog, we’ll provide tips for successful home learning, and describe how to create a stable, seamless and engaging digital learning experience. 

About the Author

Chris Frazier

Chris Frazier is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. He covers technology and helps clients make their messaging clear and meaningful.

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